Tag Archives: Predator-friendly Pastoralism

Partnership Rewilding with Predators

Elk near Jackson Hole, Photo: Dave Rose
Elk near Jackson Hole,
Photo: Dave Rose

My father, Dave Rose, was fascinated with the elk that came down out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter months. He took us kids to Jackson Hole to see them, and he persuaded the guy with the hay to let us ride on the trailer while he went through the herd dumping fodder. Dad took slides (and more slides). Sometimes it seemed as if every slide show was all about elk!

Only much later did I learn that the National Elk Refuge was founded in 1912 by local ranchers who were concerned that this great herd might go extinct. Its migration routes were disrupted by ranches and the town.  Conflict between ranchers and elk over hay led to killing, and there was mass starvation.

The establishment of a winter refuge adjacent to Yellowstone, with funds for fodder, was an early action in America’s long and often odd conservation movement. For almost one hundred years wolves were persecuted. Herbivores were hunted. Still today at the National Elk Refuge, ‘both bison and elk populations are managed through refuge hunt programs. Permits specific to each hunt are required and are obtained online or through the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.’

When we went there all those years ago, it was pretty easy to see that this great migratory herd had nowhere to go. Problem and solution seemed pretty clear. But if Dad had read Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ he might have suspected that there was more to the story. Leopold’s brief, influential essay starts with him killing a wolf, as people did in those days, and then working through the implications of predator loss, overabundance of deer, stripped vegetation, and barren ground.

American wolves in captivity
American wolves in captivity

For centuries mainstream European-origin culture has feared, despised, and sought to annihilate wolves and other predators. The outcome, if one can use such neutral term to describe the result of all this suffering, has been extinctions and extirpations. If Dad had asked about wolves, he would have come upon a story of vicious, cruel persecution that would have deeply saddened his kind and generous heart.

As if in counterpoint to all the death work that has gone into efforts to eradicate wolves, conservation biologists are discovering that the top carnivores have ecological roles that benefit numerous species of flora and fauna. This is counter-intuitive thinking for western peoples, but it is actually integral to indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong tells the story in the context of Mongolia: kill the wolves and you kill the grazing lands, and so you kill the herding way of life.

‘Trophic cascade’ is the scientific term for ecological processes that ripple from one species through others, and through whole ecosystems.

This process has been documented with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a seventy year absence. The consequences are completely stunning. A recent video narrated by George Monbiot tells the story in words and images (view here). It is helpful to know that Monbiot uses the word ‘deer’ where Americans would use the word ‘elk’ for the species Cervus elaphus. I don’t want to spoil the drama of the video, so I’ll just make the point that a trophic cascade starting with a top predator ripples through other animal species, plant species, and ultimately even through the physical geography of their ecosystem.

Furlined/Creative Commons
Furlined/Creative Commons

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone is an example of the new thinking that is often called ‘rewilding’. It addresses ecosystem restoration on a large scale; there is no attempt at retrieving primeval ‘wilderness’ – that would be impossible, and if it were possible it would be counterproductive. Rather, rewilding aims to let ecological processes start up again.

The development of rewilding programs in the USA depends on three key strategies: cores, corridors and carnivores. The carnivores are the first key, as Monbiot narrates in the Yellowstone video. If they are healthy, the benefits flow on through the system.

The second key, then, recognises that the top predators require adequate range to sustain themselves across generations. The third key is corridors; it recognises the fact cores can become death traps unless the animals can move. This is so genetically, and equally because ecosystems and climate always offer the unexpected. With climate change, even more unexpected changes are (paradoxically) expected to occur. Animals need the versatility and flexibility in order to be able to respond to change.

Carnivores with ample area and ample connectivity will regulate ecosystems in ways that achieve complexity, diversity, and resilience.

So far, so good, but now the news turns alarming. An extremely important recent publication addresses these issues in the context of climate change and the accelerating extinction event now underway. A great number of the large carnivores that ecosystems need are themselves vulnerable to extinction or local extirpation. The authors state that in light of all the recent evidence ‘alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature.’

Photo: John Murray
Photo: John Murray

A good section of the study is dedicated to dingoes, and it summarises the work of Arian Wallach and the other dingo scientists whose work last year was awarded the Eureka Prize. Their conclusion: ‘Overall, the suppression of dingo has probably contributed to the endangerment and extinction of small marsupials and rodents over much of the continent.’ It has also enabled the expansion of a range of invasive species over much of the continent.

The biggest threat to large carnivores is the human species. Finding ways of co-existence is therefore absolutely crucial. Not only is the work that carnivores do ‘underappreciated’ (the authors’ words); in many areas, as is well known, predators are actively persecuted. Many pastoralists have formed the view that livestock and predators are incompatible. Having set up an ‘us or them’ opposition, they destroy the predators.

Dingo Barrier Fence
Dingo Barrier Fence

Here in Australia the conflict is between cattle and sheep farmers on the one hand, and dingoes on the other. I wish they would all read Wolf Totem, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they will listen to the recent  Bush Telegraph radio report ‘Could dingoes actually help farmers?’ (listen here) The program starts with a fascinating interview with Lyn Watson of the Dingo Discovery Centre speaking about dingo physiology and behaviour. It concludes with Arian Wallach, the dingo research scientist and one of the authors of the influential study of carnivores and climate change. She carries out research on Evelyn Downs Station, a working cattle station (ranch) that is one of the few predator-friendly ranches in Australia.

In the radio interview Arian reminds listeners that dingoes are top predators here in Australia: ‘ …  the health of the ecosystemits biodiversity, its productivity, the condition of it’s soil, the rivers, the endangered speciesare all tightly linked up with the dingo.’ She then very precisely changes the story from ‘us vs them’ (pastoralists vs. dingoes) to interconnection. Rather than barriers, there are connections. Cattle and sheep need biodiversity, dingos sustain biodiversity, therefore pastoralists, livestock and dingoes are all interconnected and are, in effect, on the same side.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Arian and Lyn also discuss the problems that arise when dingo ‘control’ (poison, trapping, shooting) creates homeless, unsocialised creatures who are effectively out-of-control. It is a truly vicious circle, and one of our great challenges is how to break the cycle of violence without destroying either pastoralists, or livestock, or dingoes.

To return to partnership rewilding, therefore, I see hope in the idea that the best thing we humans can do for the earth at this time is to work in alliance with other creatures whose lives regulate, pollinate, and otherwise sustain flourishing ecosystems. In relation to flying-foxes I proposed the establishment of vast corridors or networks of flowering trees. ‘Rewilding’ the open savannah woodlands would enable flying-foxes to sustain themselves and continue their work of pollination. Those same corridors could also be habitat for dingoes and many other creatures, and as core areas are maintained, and more corridors are established, the country can become criss-crossed with edges and zones of co-existence.

Life on earth is not ours to destroy, and nor is it ours to engineer solely for ourselves.

Partnership Rewilding acknowledges and works with interconnections. At this time, most ecosystems are massively perturbed and there is a huge role for humans in working to re-establish favourable conditions. The ethics of multi-species alliances thus have several sides. Humans may at times be active partners, and at times may simply need to get out of the way so that others can do the work they are so beautifully evolved to do.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Arian Wallach has just published and excellent article in ‘The Conservation’ (read here)

Her recent interview on Freedom of Species is also relevant and insightful. (listen here)

Resources:

Aldo Leopold’s essay is available online: http://nctc.fws.gov/resources/knowledge-resources/wildread/thinking-like-a-mountain.pdf

The horror of the violence against wolves is conveyed, along with much else, by Barry Lopez in his great book Of Wolves and Men.

Mongolian herders’ relationships with wolves are analysed in Natasha Fijn’s ethnography Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. She is a terrific film-maker as well, and films from her Mongolian experience are also available (view here).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ray Pierotti, author of Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, for the wolf photos and for clarification of the elk/deer nomenclature.

Violence Against the Defenceless

Flying-fox Courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox
Courtesy of Nick Edards

The term ‘warfare’ is regularly used to describe human action against the natural world. I too have spoken of the war against nature and the war against flying-foxes. And yet, I haven’t felt fully comfortable with this language.

Nature (in general), and flying-foxes (in particular), have never mounted a war against humans. The violence in this ‘war’ is all one-sided. And, too, the violence is radically disproportionate. What humans have done to flying-foxes in Charters Towers, both now and in the past, bears no correlation to what flying-foxes have done or ever could do to humans. Reports indicate that the people who organised the Charters Towers violence have stopped. Apparently, they are ‘happy’ with the results. Can it really be that all this suffering and on-going injury, including starvation, all this totally unnecessary death, constitutes warfare and is something to be happy about?

A new book called Horrorism is helping me think again about the problem of using the language and imagery of warfare to describe human-animal or human-nature violence. Written by the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero, and subtitled ‘Naming Contemporary Violence’, this wonderful book shows that there are huge problems in using the language of warfare to describe forms of violence that are directed primarily against the helpless. Her examples all concern violence perpetrated by humans against humans, but the general direction of her analysis works extremely well with human violence against animals.

Horrorism Adriana Cavarero
Horrorism
Adriana Cavarero

Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare. But there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Speaking for myself, I respect the armed forces, and I respect the fact that some wars (not all) are necessary.

It is clear that a great deal of contemporary violence does not live up to the model of the warrior. Violence against the helpless, violence for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain for those against whom it is directed – this is not warfare. This is something that should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horror, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’. In Charters Towers the use of weapons of harm was thoroughly engaged in damaging bodies, minds, and social relations. The attack on the maternity camp targeted defenceless young and nursing mothers, and thus was an attack not only on this generation but on future generations as well. In the mode of violence against the future it clearly aimed to violate the standards that have been set for conservation of native species (i.e., ensuring their continuity).

Is horror new? Not at all, Cavarero says, and yet something is changing. In part it is the scale of violence, in part it is the organised and sanctioned targeting of those who are helpless, and in part it is the wanton revelling in ruining the person, their bodily dignity, their life and future. In Cavarero’s words ‘a certain model of horror is indispensable for understanding our present’ time.

Cavarero discusses the totalitarian principle that ‘everything is permitted’ in the use of force against the defenceless. Here in Australia we have had legislation that prohibits cruelty to animals and the purpose has been very clear. Not everything was permitted in the use of violence against animals. But when Queensland made the legislative decision that the anti-cruelty legislation would not apply to flying-foxes, it opened the way for an apparently bottomless pit of cruel and vicious action. Yes, there had to be a permit to ‘disperse’ flying-foxes, and yes, the actions were meant to comply with the permit, but in the absence of any outside regulation, and with the tacit approval Local Councils for whom ‘everything is permitted’, cruelty becomes a matter of local choice.

Many of us wondered where the RSPCA was in all of this. A recent statement offers a bit of clarity. In a nutshell, if cruelty is allowed, then the only legal questions are procedural: was the action carried out in the manner in which it had been stated it would be carried out? This legal pit of violence was anticipated by many thoughtful people, as I discuss in my post on Zombie Politics. And yet, many of us really had not fully grasped the depths to which humans will sink, given the opportunity. The RSPCA asks to be notified in cases of ‘blatant cruelty’. What was the Charters Towers action if not horrific, and certainly blatant, cruelty?

It is clear in Cavarero’s analysis that the language of warfare puts a layer of conventionality over actions that are essentially crimes. Let us not forget: actions that would legally have been crimes if the legislation had not been changed are still the same actions. Nothing has changed except that people are now carrying out violence that previously the courts, the legislature, and all humane people had understood to be criminal. In the language of horrorism, people are savaging the bodies of those who have no means of defending themselves against this wounding.

Is the Charters Towers event over? Not for flying-foxes. Not for the survivors who may yet die of starvation or shock, not for those who come back next year, and perhaps not for the survivors who have gone to other towns in Queensland. Further actions are planned. The story of persecution is just beginning. This means that the need for action is not over either. Websites and Facebook pages are helping people to stay in touch with what is happening. A few of my favourites include Don’t Shoot Bats, Bat Conservation and Rescue, and Bob Irwin’s site.

I will close with some words from Louise Saunders, of Bat Conservation and Rescue:

The use of water cannons to hose bats from the trees at Charters Towers’ cruel and sadistic dispersal. An observer said a mother and her baby were hit with the full force and thrown to the ground. This is barbaric treatment to a gentle innocent and important keystone mammal. With non flying and dependent young many mothers tried to carry away their babies but the young are too big to carry far if at all. Nursing mothers so stressed from the cruel onslaught will lose their milk in the next week or so, as seen when maternity colonies are disturbed. Their babies die slowly and in agony. PLEASE if you have not written to confirm your disgust please we need your voice. Email the EHP Director General – jon.black@ehp.qld.gov.au and the EHP environment minister Andrew Powell – Environment@ministerial.qld.gov.au THEY WILL BE LEGISLATING FOR MORE TORTURE TO BATS IN THE NEW YEAR -KILLING ENTIRE COLONIES BY UNIMAGINABLE MEANS. PLEASE HELP OUR BATS. WRITE ASAP Thanks

© Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Dingo Research Wins Top Award

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (A. Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (A. Wallach)

The election results here in Australia are not good news for wildlife, ecosystems that have sustained minimal human impact, and all the human beings who research, rescue, love, care for, and defend animals, plants and ecosystems that are at risk.

In dark times we need stories that help us sustain our moral compass, as Hannah Arendt told us many years ago. It was really great, therefore, to see that dingo research has won one of the prestigious Eureka Prizes organised by the Australian Museum. The award is timely both because of the quality of the research, and because of the social context of dingo vilification.

In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote about the fact that there is in Australia a concerted war against dingoes. On the physical front, the war is being waged with 1080 poison, traps and bullets. On the propaganda front, the war is being waged around questions of sheep and cattle security, and presents itself as a war of terror, emblemised by hanging the dead bodies of dingoes and other canines from trees, posts and fences.

Research tells a different story. When they are not under attack, dingoes behave as top predators: they regulate their own populations and promote biodiversity within their territories. Much of our knowledge about dingoes as top predators comes from the work of a dedicated team. On September 4, 2013 the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research was awarded to the team and the research.

The team: Professor Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania; Dr Michael Letnic, University of New South Wales; Dr Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Dr Arian Wallach, James Cook University; and Adam O’Neill, Evelyn Downs Station.

The citation: “Professor Chris Johnson and his team’s work is conservation with bite! It has shown how the dingo helps sustain biodiversity in Australian ecosystems. It points the way to improved environmental management in which the dingo could be used to aid the recovery of degraded lands and therefore help protect threatened species.”

My friend Arian Wallach and I have had many fascinating conversations about life, death, dingoes, ecosystem cascades, and more. She and Adam O’Neill now live at Evelyn Downs station where they both manage the cattle and carry out dingo research. From her place on the station, Arian is advocating a wonderful proposal: Predator-Friendly Pastoralism.

Here it is in her own words:

“Evelyn Downs started out as a dingo-recovery study site, which we visited twice for annual surveys of mammals, plants and the dingoes of course. It was after the second field trip that Adam was invited to take on the position of station manager, and we snatched the opportunity to live in and manage one of our study sites. The most difficult aspect of our work over the years has been finding areas that are free of persecution (aka 1080-baiting) for an extended period of time. Living in our study site provides a measure of protection for the dingoes, stability for our research, and continual interactions and observations of this changing ecosystem. Rather than visiting our study site once a year, we are there every day to see and document the recovery of the dingo population and the cascading effect this has on other wildlife, plants – and the cattle. Evelyn Downs, together with a handful of other pioneering pastoral stations across the country, are the first to trial predator-friendly pastoralism. Perhaps one day soon, alongside labels such as “organic” and “free-range”, we’ll have a new “predator-friendly” label with a little image of a howling dingo on the package too… “

Thank you Arian!

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)